Friday, June 09, 2006

The 2005-2006 TV Season in Review

They say that the unexamined life is not worth living. I say the unexamined TV season is not worth watching. Now that we've gotten a few weeks away from the emotional roller-coaster that is "Season Finale Time", I think we can finally look at the past season of TV objectively.

If you remember way back in September, I posted my "Fall TV Guide" - - basically consisting of the shows I felt were worth watching this past season. It consisted of the following 15 shows. How were my predictions? In a word: shoddy. How many of those 15 shows will be making next year's "Fall TV Guide"? A mere 5. What happened to the rest of them? Well...

Arrested Development - absolutely hilarious, but way too smart for America, which clamors for karaoke voting shows and procedural crime dramas. Cancelled in December.

How I Met Your Mother - a nice show… but not nice enough. I stuck around for two episodes, then found it was just another sitcom.

Kitchen Confidential - could have had potential, but never really found its groove. Cancelled in the fall after only a few episodes.

Laguna Beach - this past season was fantastic. Honestly, when I see reruns on MTV even now, I stop and watch to relive the glory days. It's a guilty pleasure for sure, and the plot advanced about as fast as a daytime soap opera, but I loved the characters (and loved to hate a lot of them) and was fascinated by their lives. So why isn't it going to make the list next year? Well, it's going to be "Laguna Beach: The New Class" featuring LC's little sister (who I don't know or care about) along with her friends. I guess there's potential that I grow to love them as much as I did their older brethren, but there's much more potential that the show will become a shell of its former self.

The OC - seriously, what happened to this show? During its first season, it was one of my favorite shows on TV. It had everything - humor, teenage romance, fisticuffs, and the hottest mom on TV. I've never seen the wheels fall of a show so fast. This past season continued its decent, as it became a mockery of its former self and became simply a bad teenage drama. After about three episodes, I jumped ship.

Everybody Hates Chris - I'll be honest - I never watched this show once, and I'm okay with that. It had all the buzz last fall, but was in an uber-competitive timeslot and I just never had the desire to switch off another show to give it a chance. This show may or may not be great. It just doesn’t appeal to me.

Reunion - could have been my "OC Replacement" this year, giving me my guilty soap-opera-esque drama with a little murder mystery and creative story-telling style thrown in for good measure. Cancelled before we got to present day, found out who the killer was, or enjoyed the cast going through the Internet bust of the late 1990s.

Desperate Housewives - has any show become more irrelevant faster than Desperate Housewives? Its first season at least had an underlying story of their friend committing suicide and the surrounding mystery - a great analogy for modern suburbia - but the second season found the characters becoming cartoonish versions of themselves, going to insane extremes to try and "top themselves", and had a meandering "main storyline" that would go weeks without being touched. I stopped watching a few episodes into the season, and it looks like most of America did the same - as Grey's Anatomy's ratings continued to climb, Desperate Housewive's ratings were down 20% from last year.

Family Guy - still a funny show, but after you've seen it a few times, you pretty much know what you're going to get. Lots of flashbacks ("remember that time…") and obscure pop-culture references with mixed comedic results. South Park did a hilarious take on the show when they commented about how the jokes are totally irrelevant to the storyline of the episode, and the writers are actually manitees who pick random names, places, and verbs and put them together for a joke. Watching the show after seeing that South Park episode, you can't help but notice how true it is.

After weeding out these pretenders, we are left with the following list of ten shows - contenders for "Best Show of the 2005-2006 TV Season". I was originally going to go through and rank just the Season Finales of the Season, but decided it would be better to rank them on their seasons as a whole. There was a lot of debate, soul searching, and gut-wrenching decisions, but I'm satisfied with my decisions.

I present to you, The Top 10 shows of 2005-2006:

10. Iron Chef America - I would be lying to myself, and anyone who has ever set foot in the Delta House if I didn't include at least one Food Network show. Honestly, it wins the award for "Most Watched Network" of the year, and is on TV #2 at least three or four hours a day (honestly, how do people live without a multi-TV setup in their living rooms?!). Maybe it's just a guy thing, but I could honestly learn about food and watch people cook all day long. Even during Lost, Food Network remains on TV #2 - it's an addiction. I might have a problem.

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Iron Chef America combines everything that makes the Food Network great. Food Network celebrities, interesting dishes, and competition all rolled into one entertaining hour. While the original Japanese version had humorous voice-over translations, the American version trumps it in every way. We have Alton Brown giving us the "science" of the ingredients, teaching us how to use and prepare them. We have much more entertaining chefs (Bobby Flay, Mario Batali). Lastly, and most importantly, we have secret ingredients that I would actually eat. Things like "Battle Hamburger" and "Battle Cheese" instead of "Battle Fish Eyes" and "Battle Seaweed" that the Japanese version would feature.

Add it all up, and this is a big reason that I no longer watch Desperate Housewives on Sunday nights. (Honorable mention to "Top Chef" on Bravo, which I only caught the second half of, but was very entertaining - probably featuring the "most fun" challenges I've ever seen on a cooking show. I'll be watching next year, no doubt.)

9. Amazing Race - The race was back to being amazing. After a lackluster year spent driving around America, the show criss-crossed the world, had interesting (and sometimes difficult) challenges, and had contestants that you could earnestly root both for and against. The corporate sponsorship tie-ins were a bit blatant this year (Da Vinci Code, Travelocity), but I'll let it slide. If they are the reason the show can afford to show me exotic locales from multiple camera angles, it is worth it.

The Amazing Race is still the only reality show I've ever watched where the people I was rooting for actually have won (The Linz Family last year, The Hippies this year), which definitely makes the whole viewing experience a little more satisfying.

8. Alias - Oh Alias, I have such conflicting emotions about you. On the one hand, I'm sad to see you go. On the other hand, I know that it's time to let go. This past season had hints of the glory days (Season 1 and 2), bringing back some familiar characters and Rambaldi mysteries, but was still too entangled in the storyline mess of Seasons 3 and 4 to really take off. With the introduction of new characters, you got the feeling that the show could have continued for a few more years (Sydney teaching the newbies the ropes, then retiring) - but honestly, would we have really enjoyed a show where the newbies were the stars instead of our old friends? It was time to end.

The writers did their best to wrap up up the story as best they could in the finale, but it still left far too many questions unanswered for my liking. (Is Rambaldi alive? If Irina had that red ball, how did she die? Why did Rambaldi want Sydney dead? Explain his crazy prophecies!!!). This makes me a little worried for the eventual future of Lost, because the two shows are pretty similar fundamentally. Both have events that totally change the series (Destruction of SD-6 vs. Finding the Hatch), introduced new characters that become fundamental to the storyline (Lauren vs. The Others), and mysteries that just seem to get deeper instead of ever getting answered. But here's why there's reason for hope - if you can believe it, Lost is much more of a straightforward storyline than Alias ever was.

I liked the happy ending, which left the door open for adventures down the road and made it feel like the Alias world would continue going on - we're just not going to be there to see it anymore.

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(Note: Wikipedia - the greatest single source of information in the known world - offered this take on the Fulfillment of the Rambaldi Propehcies. It's pretty good. I almost buy it…

Each element of Rambaldi's Page 47 prophesy is apparently fulfilled in the series' finale.

This woman, without pretense, will have had her effect, never having seen the beauty of my sky behind Mt. Subasio. Perhaps a single glance would have quelled her fire.

Sydney follows Sloane inside a cave in Mt Subasio. Slone is in possession of a Rambaldi artifact (a necklace). Moments later the sun rises and shines through a hole in the cave's wall. When the rays of sunshine hit the necklace it projects something onto a cavern wall, but before Sydney is able to see it, Slone shoots the ground around her and she falls. By doing this the prophecy is fullfilled: "never having seen the beauty of my sky behind Mt. Subasio"... with "the beauty of my sky" he referred to what the sun's rays would reveal, and "behind Mt Subasio" meant inside the cave.

This woman here depicted will possess unseen marks, signs that she will be the one to bring forth my works: bind them with fury, a burning anger.

The letter of Rambaldi's prophecy is fulfilled by three physical anomalies mentioned by Rambaldi that Sydney possessed: DNA sequencing; platelet levels; and the size of her heart. Sydney possessed unseen marks in her gift for three dimensional problem solving, which may be considered as fulfilling the spirit. At SD-6 she was directly responsible for bringing forth the works of Rambaldi by collecting them for both SD-6 and the CIA. During the series finale, the culmination of collecting the Rambaldi artifacts (binding Rambaldi's works) lead Arvin Sloane and Sydney in a face-off. After Jack Bristow is shot by Arvin Sloane, Sydney displays a burning anger by brutally shooting Arvin Sloane.

Unless prevented, at vulgar cost, this woman will render the greatest power unto utter desolation.

This sequence of events fufills the final element of the prophecy. The greatest power which Sloane and Irina Derevko are both seeking is that of immortality, in the form of a blood red fluid found in Rambaldi's tomb. After Sydney shoots Sloane, he gains immortality from his body's immersion in the liquid. He has no chance to enjoy it after a dying Jack Bristow sets off explosives that trap Sloane under rocks in Rambaldi's tomb forever. With the last of the fluid in the Horizon, Sydney and her mother fight to the death. When Irina attempts to retrieve the artifact, she falls to her death through a cracked glass skylight. The greatest power is rendered unto utter desolation as all who have the power to seek it are destroyed along with the power to achieve immortality itself. In the end, Rambaldi accurately predicted that Sydney would ensure his greatest work (the secret of immortality) would be rendered unto utter desolation because it is forever lost.)

7. My Name is Earl - How I love Jason Lee. For my money, he's one of the funniest people in Hollywood today. He continued his streak of turning anything he touches to comedic gold this year with Earl. The relationship between Earl and Randy is second only to perhaps Dwight and Michael on the Office for funniest on TV. A feel good show that never gets too schmaltzy due to its white trash take on subject matter. It's a "light show", one that doesn't require attentive viewing week in and week out, but if you notice - they've been slowly building the cast by bringing back people who appear in previous episodes for little bit parts - a nice touch of continuity.

There's the risk that the setup for the show could become "stale" after a while, with Earl righting his wrongs week in and week out, but they've managed to keep it extremely fresh and entertaining so far - I'll be watching next year for sure.

6. Prison Break - This is a prime example of a show being too popular for its own good. Started out great, with what seemed to be a clear, logical (well, as logical as a "jail break out" storyline can be) storyline and then lost some steam as they seemed to stretch it out twice as long as it needed to be. Honestly, the first twelve episodes or so (right up to the "Fall Finale") were among some of the most exciting on TV - as good as the best season of 24. But the second half of the season lost some steam. There are only so many times you can watch their attempts fail before you get frustrated with your TV.

Think about this - for as smart as Michael was, all the planning, tattooing, and scheming he did - his plan came down to him holdig up the Warden with a sharp piece of metal. Tell me their breakout wouldn’t have been ten times more satisfying if it was Michael's brains that got them out instead? Some clever realization that all the little things he did all fell into place and got them out would have put it right up there as Best Show of the Year.

My other qualm - they still didn't show them break out. They showed them in the process - but running through a field with an army of cops and helicopters chasing them. I don’t call that "breaking out" - I call that "trying to break out… but failing". If the writers truly have a good storyline for Season 2 planned (and I have faith they do - they were clever enough to introduce just enough of the characters outside lives to make me very interested to see what happens), just let the characters get there. Stop dragging it out.

5. 24 - If the season had ended after 18 episodes, I would be arguing why it was the best season ever. Instead, it suffered a similar fate to Season 2 (though not quite as extreme) where the most exciting storyline that we all cared about was resolved too soon, leaving the last few episodes feeling like filler. If the writers of 24 were smart (and more and more, it really does seem like they just make up the storylines as they go along - as opposed to having a "master plan" before the season starts), they would have timed it to have the season wrapping up with Jack on the plane, getting the President's recording, and playing it for the Attorney General. Instead, got a recycle of the "nerve gas" storyline on the submarine followed by Jack getting a new recording of the President admitting his crimes. Lame.

But aside from that, this season was outstanding. It's always fun to look back and think "Oh, at the start of the day everyone thought Jack was dead and he was shacking up with that chick and her son - now he got back with Audrey and is kidnapped by the Chinese". Admittedly, so much happens in 24 that it's laughable to think of it as a single day - but damn if it's still not better than any action movie I've seen in the past 10 years.

4. The Office - Everyone predicted that The Office was going to be cancelled after its first season. Instead, it was renewed and came back with a season that was every bit as funny as the first season - and in the process, secured its place as one of NBC's staple comedies. From "The Dundies" to Michael burning his foot in the George Foreman grill, this season provided more hilarious scenes than any other show on TV this year. They brought the Jim and Pam storyline to a head without it ever feeling like a cheesy Ross / Rachel storyline. We got to see another side of Michael that actually made us feel really bad for him (Halloween episode, Bring Your Child to Work day). Each character on the show, for as outrageous they are - feel real. We all know a Dwight Stroop (Currin). We all know a Stanley, a Meredith, and a Kevin - or at least those of us who work in an Office environment do.

What makes this show so great is the fluid feel to it. It never feels like a scripted TV comedy. There are awkward silences, lingering camera shots, and quick cutaways to "confessional" sessions that make it unlike any other show on TV - but not bizarre enough to fall into the "Arrested Development" category of "too smart for its own good".

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3. Scrubs - I love Scrubs. In fact, I've made it my personal mission in life to get as many people as possible to start watching this show. I can't tell you how proud I was when a group of my friends did the "We don’t just rock together, we roll together… COOL CATS" quote all night long earlier this year. But I was the first to admit that Seasons 1 and 2 were far superior to Seasons 3 and 4. However, this past season, the show seems to be back on track, giving us episodes that rivaled the best of its first two years. From the hilarious Air Band episode to the brilliant Wizard of Oz episode, the writing on Scrubs this year was as tight as ever. It all culminated with the saddest episode of any TV show I've ever seen (move aside Buffy's "The Body" and "Becoming, Part II") when Dr. Cox broke down after killing some patients by giving them organ transplants from someone who died of rabies. When you can make a show that is funny enough to have me quote it all the time, and turn around and make an episode that brings a tear to my eye, you're doing something right.

And that's the beauty of Scrubs. It's a comedy. It's a drama. It's about life. It does all these things extremely well. It's good to see it back on the top of its game.

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2. Lost - How can a show I spend hours a week talking and thinking about not be my favorite show of the past year? Don't get me wrong, I loved this season of Lost - I think it was superior to the first season in many ways. But one has to look at the season as a whole, not just the most recent episodes. Remember the lame Charlie flashback where he was making a diaper commercial? Remember the chunk of mid-season episodes between the Tailers meeting up with our Survivors and the appearance of HGI? Not a lot happened, and unlike the first season, the flashbacks weren't as intriguing - making a handful of episodes rather dull. So, although as a whole this season was fantastic, there were enough episodes that weren't stellar to knock it down to the number two slot.

However, as I said - this season of Lost was almost everything a fan could have hoped for. We were introduced to a sprawling mythology of the Island, the mysterious Hanso Foundation, confirmed the existence of the Others, met some great, fascinating new characters (Desmond, Eko, HGI), and actually had the storyline advance ten times farther than the first season did. In a way, Season One was getting to know the characters. Season Two was about getting to know the Island and what was going on (or at least starting to know). Just compare how much happened in the Season Two Finale compared to the Season One Finale - it's like night and day.

Without a doubt, Lost is the smartest show on TV. It is shocking to me that the show is as popular as it is, because it requires patience, attention to detail, and an understanding of subtle actions and plot development in order to be fully appreciated - and these are traits I don't immediately associate with the majority of the American population (who would rather vote for American Idol than the President of America). It's well acted, well shot, and well thought out. Truly one of the all around "best" shows on TV. Just not the best, at least this year...

1. Grey's Anatomy - I'm such a girl. Somehow, Grey's Anatomy ended up as The Best Show of 2005-2006. Mind you, this was a show I saw in passing from time to time after Desperate Housewives last year without giving it much thought. Yet this year found me not only watching the show, but downloading every episode of the previous season, watching them, and then buying the DVDs so that I could own them forever. (Note: this is also how I discovered Alias and Scrubs). I became obsessed with it (not to the degree of Lost or Dave Matthews Band, but to the point where I couldn't help but talk about it to whoever would listen). What was it about the show that appealed to me? Hot doctors hooking up? Crazy dramatic hospital storylines? Catchy pseudo-indie background music?

Yes - but it was more a combination of those things, in addition to much more. The show is extremely well written and takes itself and its subject matter seriously (but still gives you laugh out loud moments) without being overly pretentious. It's a fun show, and it knows it. There are episodes that are heavy (Super Bowl episode), episodes that are light (Pregnant Man), and episodes in between - but all are done well. Unlike other medical dramas, the "crazy illnesses and accidents" aren't the spotlight of the show - but rather serve as a backdrop for the character interactions.

Earlier this year, when I first discovered Grey's, I said it was "more Sex and the City than ER". But looking at it now, in many ways, Grey's is more like Scrubs. Both are "medical" shows, but not really. Both use the "action" of the episode to serve as symbolism for things going on in the characters' lives. Both have the main character giving the voice-over at times throughout the episode to set the theme and tone. Both shows can run the emotional gamut and never seem like they're wandering into uncomfortable territory. Whereas Scrubs leans comedic, Grey's leans dramatic.

Looking back, I can't pick out a single episode that ended with me feeling like I wasted an hour of my life watching it. There were fantastic stand-out episodes in addition to having the best Season Finale of the Season (somehow I didn't even have a problem with the "prom" scene - which was a genius plot device to bring the season to an end). No matter what the episode was, it was always entertaining. This past year Scrubs made me laugh (and occasionally cry), Lost made me think (and occasionally learn hieroglyphics and Roman), but Grey's Anatomy made me happy.

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So there you have it, the Ten Best Shows of 2005-2006. (Although it's a bit early to judge next year's shows, nothing at the upfronts jumped out at me as being a show I would soon be loving - so it's safe to say a good portion of these shows will be appearing on next year's list, assuming they don't have a complete creative meltdown.)

That about wraps up all my thoughts about the past season, so if there's anything I missed, feel free to leave some comments and I'll answer any other burning questions you might have and I'll respond. All in all, it was a GREAT year. There was an article in Entertainment Weekly earlier this year about how we're in the Golden Age of TV and I have to agree. Out of nowhere, we've emerged from the reality-filled early 2000s and are suddenly surrounded by well-written, creative, intelligent, entertaining shows (well, maybe not "surrounded" - there's still a lot of junk out there - but there's enough good stuff to keep me entertained on a nightly basis!).

Enjoy it. I know I did.